The possibilities for discovery are endless, regardless of route, on a European river cruise, writes Pamela Wade.

Let's not make this about Germany versus France. That would just be awkward. And let's get the size thing out of the way too: so what if the Rhine is Germany's longest river, while the Rhone is only number two in France? We all know that's not what counts.

What's important, when you're selecting a European river cruise, is which river delivers the goods. Both routes offer regional food, famous wines, historic cities, picturesque villages and impressive scenery, so it's the detail that matters when you're investing at least a week and a few thousand dollars in your holiday.

The Rhone runs for 813km from the Swiss Alps down to the Mediterranean, where it enters the marshes of the Camargue region. Cruises along this route usually sail between Arles and Lyon, with sometimes an extension into its main tributary, the Saone. The Rhone takes you through Provence and Burgundy, famous for their wines, and excursions for winery visits and tastings include Cotes du Rhone, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, l'Hermitage and other fine producers of burgundy and beaujolais. There is also much pleasure to be had in simply sitting on the sundeck as the boat cruises past the steeply sloped vineyards, as you sip the results of all that obvious labour. There is chocolate here too, at the Valrhona factory in Tain-l'Hermitage.

Before you arrived on your luxuriously fitted-out boat with its comfortable stateroom, marble bathroom, solicitous crew and excellent restaurant, the Greeks and Romans were through here like a rash. Thank the Greeks for the wine, and the Romans for the architecture. Visits to Arles, Avignon and Vienne showcase amphitheatres, temples and bridges over 2000 years old. That's just the beginning of the history: there's well-preserved medieval Viviers, where narrow lanes wind up to France's smallest cathedral; Tournon with its 10th century castle; Avignon of bridge fame with an intact city wall and a 14th century Palace of the Popes; and in Beaune, the wine capital of Burgundy, a 15th century charity hospital with a gorgeous patterned roof.

A medieval cathedral in the French city of Viviers. Photo / 123RF
A medieval cathedral in the French city of Viviers. Photo / 123RF

There's culture too, beginning with beautiful Arles where the light and the colours inspired all of Van Gogh's best paintings, Chalon-sur-Saone where photography began, and Lyon's Musee des Beaux-Arts, second only to the Louvre. There's silk in this city too, and the huge and busy Les Halles produce market that supplies the many famous restaurants there including those of Paul Bocuse.

From the Basilica on top of the hill, down through the hidden alleyways put to such good use by the Resistance during the war (visit the inspiring museum), past the huge murals, to the river crossed by 15 bridges, this is a city rich with interest, its Old Town a World Heritage site.

But nature features strongly too. The river passes through rocky gorges, rich farmland, vineyards, gnarled olive orchards and glorious fields of lavender before dispersing through the Camargue, famous for its white horses, black bulls and cowboys.

So the Rhone ticks all the boxes for scenery, history, food and wine - and, of course, it's all in France, Europe's most popular tourist destination, while Germany comes in at just number seven on that list. But how does the Rhine compare?

A field of tulips along the Rhine. Photo / 123RF
A field of tulips along the Rhine. Photo / 123RF

Rising in Switzerland, it runs for 1320km through Germany to the North Sea in the Netherlands, and is Europe's most important river both historically and commercially: it still carries the densest shipping on the continent. Most of these are barges carrying anonymous goods hidden under coverings; but river cruisers make up a respectable proportion of this traffic. The downside of this is that it's sometimes necessary for the boats to moor three or more abreast, which can lead to surprises when opening your curtains in the morning but has the consolation prize of being able to snoop into other lines' vessels as you pass through them to the shore.

There are more than a dozen of these companies sailing several variations of the route, some of them including the Main, Moselle and Neckar rivers too, with the granddaddy being 23 days adding in the Danube to finish at Bucharest; but a standard Rhine cruise is about a week from Basel to Amsterdam.

A castle along the Rhine. Photo / 123RF
A castle along the Rhine. Photo / 123RF

Cuckoo clocks to windmills, then - but so much in between. Beer, for a start, and plenty of wine from the vineyards that cling to the steep hillsides; other signature liquids include gin, brandy and the Rhine itself, which supplies drinking water for 30 million Germans. And then there's food, which is substantial from start to finish with heavy emphasis on meat and potatoes, cheese, and cake with whipped cream. This will not be a slimming cruise.

There are also seasonal specialties such as Holland's tulips in spring, and wonderful Christmas markets including the oldest of them all at Nuremberg.


Mainly, though, there is architecture, culture and history, inextricably entwined. Cologne's striking Gothic cathedral contains the remains of the Three Kings, there are Roman ruins, a Jewish heritage and this is where Eau de Cologne comes from (the shop has a cologne fountain). Rudesheim has the extraordinary Siegfried's Mechanical Musical Instrument Museum where guides who are, perhaps understandably, slightly manic, demonstrate orchestras played by puppet monkeys and tiny musical boxes that sound just like birds.

There is also a more sinister Medieval Torture Museum where every ghastly device is illustrated in use.

At Koblenz, at the junction with the Moselle, a cable car above the river rises high above such things to a fortress on the cliff-top. A side-trip up this river takes you to Cochem, a picture-perfect little town trailing down a hill from its castle complete with an original Witch's Tower dating from AD 1000.

Castles are the Rhine's chief treasure. The spectacular 65km stretch of the Middle Rhine Valley is dotted with around 40 ancient castles and fortresses along the cliff tops, many of them picturesque ruins but plenty restored during the 19th century. Towered and turreted, they look like something out of a Disney movie, but they're real.

Rhine or Rhone, you really can't go wrong.


Details: Avalon Waterways offers river cruises on both the Rhine and Rhone, including the eight-day Romantic Rhine between Amsterdam and Basel. They also offer an itinerary that combines both rivers, the 16-day Rhine and Rhone Revealed.